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Billy Wilder

Review: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! bombed. The Front Page may well make lots of dollars. I like to see Billy Wilder on top, but Sherlock Holmes and Avanti! will live through the ages whereas The Front Page, a calculated catch at prepackaged commercial success, is as mummified as the makeup-encased actors inhabiting it. It’s among the several worst films Wilder has ever made.

I must say the idea bothered me from the first. The director appeared to have come to terms with so many of his demons in those recent, mellow, glowingly personal pictures. The Front Page seemed a clear reversion to professional-wiseass territory—a country Wilder occasionally made his own, but the spoils of conquest only made him more bitter, so that he descended to the arid, tortured, unilluminating likes of Kiss Me, Stupid and The Fortune Cookie (better films than they were credited for at the time, but thrashing, ugly experiences all the same). The juicy cynicism of the Hecht-MacArthur property looked too readymade. And so, I fear, it’s proved to be, although one of the most serious faults of Wilder (and I.A.L. Diamond)’s version of the play is that it ignores so many of the gemlike facets of the play’s cynicism.

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Videophiled Classic: ‘Fedora’ – Billy Wilder’s memorial for old Hollywood

Fedora (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) opens with a moment right out of Anna Karenina: a woman throws herself in front of an oncoming train, a steam engine puffing out white clouds against the night sky. A grand, glorious, powerfully melodramatic suicide right out of a glamorous tragic Hollywood romance. It’s a fitting in many ways, but especially because the woman, a reclusive Greta Garbo-esque Hollywood legend by the name of Fedora, has just been offered the lead in a new screen version of the Tolstoy classic, a comeback opportunity that her watchers—a gargoyle-ish group reminiscent of the waxworks that kept company with Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.—turn down for her. So this actress appropriates the role for her exit. It turns out she’s all about role playing, to the point that she no longer can tell the difference between who she is and who she plays.

The penultimate film from Billy Wilder and a more fitting wrap to his career than his final feature Buddy, Buddy, Fedora (1978) recalls and plays off of Sunset Blvd. in numerous ways, from the premise of a retired Hollywood legend living in self-imposed exile (here it is in an isolated villa in Corfu) to William Holden in the lead, playing an out-of-fashion Hollywood producer named Barry ‘Dutch’ Detweiler, a former assistant director who worked his way through the ranks (and who could be Joe Gillis in 25 years had he survived his first brush with a Hollywood legend). He tracks Fedora (Marthe Keller), who walked off the set of her last film 15 years before and never returned, to an island villa owned by the aging Countess Fedora Sobryanski (Hildegard Knef). She looks like she hasn’t aged since the forties, which is attributed to the controversial work of once-famous plastic surgeon Doctor Vando (José Ferrer), who is now in his own kind of exile thanks to controversial treatments and scandalous failures, but she’s also paranoid and fragile. The villa could be an asylum or a fairy tale prison and the “companions” either her tough-love caretakers or jailers. In fact, appearances are deceiving in every way, and as Barry attempts to get his new script to the retired actress (with whom he had a brief fling back in his Hollywood apprenticeship), he discovers the truth behind the legend of the Fedora and her sudden disappearance years before.

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Videophiled Classic: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

WitnessProsecutionThe new Kino Lorber Studio Classics line follows the model that Olive initiated with its releases from the Paramount catalog. Kino’s licensing deal with MGM (the current MGM entity, which is largely made up of United Artists productions; the grand old MGM studio library belongs to Warner) gives them access to the new high-definition masters from a portion of the catalog as well as access to elements to create new HD masters, plus access to select supplements from previous disc releases. Kino has been expanding in the home video market in the last few years, striking releasing deals with Britain’s Redemption and producer Alfred Leone and distribution deals with Raro Video, Palisades Tartan, and Scorpion. This new deal, no surprise, was announced after Frank Tarzi left Olive, where he was the label’s head of acquisitions, and joined Kino. More than 40 releases have been announced through the end of 2014 via their dedicated Facebook page, with eight films rolling out in the first wave. I held my request to five discs and was (for the most part) well pleased with the quality I saw in these.

“Classics” is of course a fungible term, meaning everything from acknowledged masterpiece to practically anything more than 25 or 30 years old. The eight film of the first wave are largely plucked from the fifties and sixties, with a mix of acknowledged classics, award winners, and genre pictures. But for me, the highlights of the debut wave are two by Billy Wilder: Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

Based on the stage play by Agatha Christie, Witness for the Prosecution (Kino Lorber, Blu-ray, DVD) isn’t opened up for the screen so much as it is perked up with witty dialogue and wily characterizations, two strengths of Wilder and writing and producing partner I.A.L. Diamond. Charles Laughton plays the legendary barrister who defies doctor’s order and a heart condition to defend amiable but shiftless American Tyrone Power from a murder charge and Marlene Dietrich plays his German wife, a cool, suspicious character whose testimony seems to doom Power’s chances of acquittal. Of course, it’s a Christie plot so nothing is that simple, especially when incriminating letters are discovered, but the plot and the succession of twists is less interesting than the characters.

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Videophiled Essential: ‘Touch of Evil’ on Blu-ray

TouchEvilBDTouch of Evil (Universal, Blu-ray) – Orson Welles’ baroque border town murder mystery is a wild masterpiece, a sleazy, grimy, jittery, and ultimately dazzling work of cinematic magic. It’s considered the last great film noir and the bookend to the true noir era. It was also Welles’s last attempt at a career in Hollywood before he packed up to make movies in Europe.

Charlton Heston is a stiff, straight-arrow Mexican government agent Mike Vargas whose planned honeymoon with his American bride Susie (Janet Leigh) is derailed by a sensationalistic murder and police detective Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles), a bloated, blustery grotesque with a doughy face and an ill manner who has a habit of creating evidence to speed the process of justice. It features Akin Tamiroff as a Mexican border town Little Caesar with a cheap toupee and a wise-guy patter, Dennis Weaver as a sex-obsessed motel clerk on the verge of a nervous breakdown, a guest appearance by Marlene Dietrich and cameos by Welles regulars Ray Collins and Joseph Cotten.

After studio executives viewed Welles’ work in progress in 1957, the film was taken from Welles and recut into a 109-minute version that was previewed for audiences. Welles viewed the studio’s rough cut and wrote a detailed 58 page memo describing the changes he felt needed to be made to save the film. Some of those suggestions were incorporated in the final cut, most were not, and it was subsequently edited down to the 96-minute version that was released in 1958. The “preview version” was discovered in 1976 and supplanted the release version, but while it feature more footage directed by Welles, it was not his cut of the film.

Jonathan Rosenbaum discovered Welles’ memo in the files of Universal Studios and published it in the 1990s and in 1998 he became an advisor to producer Rick Schmidlin and editor Walter Murch as they took on an unprecedented project: reconstructing the version that Welles described. Though referred to as the “restored version,” it’s in fact an entirely new version: “(A)n academic example of what Welles intended,” is how Schmidlin described it.

Orson Welles and Charlton Heston

The differences in this revision are apparent in the first seconds of the film. The studio threw credits over the famous opening crane shot and set it to a brassy theme song from composer Henry Mancini but Welles (ever the pioneer) meant the scene to open the film as a dramatic sequence. By removing the credits and revealing Welles’ dense sound design, previously buried by the music, we find a riveting scene with a completely different sensibility and dynamic. Anyone who grew up on the earlier versions still feel a gang of loss; that bongo beat and the growling horns had become a part of the familiar experience, so married to the image it seemed inseparable. But as the camera follows the parallel journeys of the car (carrying a ticking bomb) and the strolling newlywed couple (Heston and Leigh) as they weave their way through the bustling Mexican border town, the rediscovered soundtrack (with musical additions by Murch as per Welles’ instructions) gives a specific sense of place of movement with its street sounds competing with car radios and nightclub music weaving in and out of the mix.

With the abrupt explosion, Welles’ style becomes more expressionistic—looming low angles, jittery handheld shots, edgy editing—and the new cutting design outlined by Welles serves this style better. The subsequent scenes are tightened up with insistent intercutting between the Vargas/Quinlan confrontations on the American side of the border and Susie’s run-in with racketeer “Uncle Joe” Grandi (Tamiroff) in Mexico. It creates a driving pace with a greater sense of urgency and tension, but it also weaves their stories together more insistently. The subsequent changes are less obvious (a trim here, an insert there, a couple of short scenes cut) but this cut also restores another, less obvious element to the original intentions.

Orson Welles as Hank Quinlan

For decades Touch of Evil was shown in theaters and on home video in the Academy ratio of 1.33:1, the boxy format of old Hollywood and old TV, but it was shot and framed to be screened at 1:85:1, the standard format by the late 1950s. The 1998 theatrical release and subsequent disc editions restored the film to its correct ratio (rounded down to 16×9 for disc). Compositions became more dramatic, framed more tightly around Welles’ groupings. The long-takes in Sanchez’s apartment feel more claustrophobic, without so much of the expanse of the blank ceiling open above their heads. The characters dominate the frame with more presence. Despite the documentation in the production records and the film elements itself that verify this change, it’s become a controversy among fans and historians, perhaps because of years of familiarity with the old format, perhaps because they prefer the open-frame roominess, a la Citizen Kane. I’m on the widescreen camp: the framing serves this film better and the visual schemes were taken up in Welles’ next widescreen film, The Trial. In Britain, both the Academy and widescreen versions were include on the DVD and Blu-ray editions. Here it’s just the widescreen.

Universal releases all three existing cuts of the film in a special edition for its Blu-ray debut, just like it did for the DVD special edition. It is a package worthy of Criterion. It’s been remastered from original 35mm elements for Blu-ray and looks amazing, and it features the four commentary tracks spread over the three versions recorded for the DVD set. Project producer Rick Schmidlin hosts a track with stars Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, with Schmidlin commenting on the changes in the “restored version” and drawing production stories and experiences from the stars, and he also contributes a solo track, both for the reconstructed version. Welles historian / project consultant Jonathan Rosenbaum and fellow Welles historian James Naremore discuss the “preview version” with a mix of production details and interpretations, and film critic F.X. Feeney offers a solo track on the shorter theatrical release. Also includes the featurettes “Bringing Evil to Life” (one on the making of the film) and “Evil Lost and Found” (on the history of the various versions and the process of reconstructing the new cut) and a reproduction of the original 58-page memo that inspired the entire project. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

For more, see my essay “The Making, Unmaking and Reclamation of Touch of Evil.

Universal debuts another film noir masterpiece on Blu-ray: Double Indemnity (Universal, Blu-ray), the 1944 classic that codified the moral depravity and sexual charge of film noir at its most cynical. Billy Wilder shocked audiences and tweaked the morality watchdogs with this ruthless adaptation of James M. Cain’s notorious novel, creating one of the touchstone films noir in process.

Barbara Stanwyck is perfectly heartless as the icy adulteress who plants the seeds of murder in the mind of Fred MacMurray’s conniving insurance agent. He plots the cold-blooded murder of her rich husband, only to discover that sharing a murder does not necessarily bring lovers closer together. Edward G. Robinson’s persistent investigator Keys brings the only real warmth to this chilly film noir; his relationship to MacMurray is the closest this film comes to real love. The rest is simply fatal attraction. The masterpiece of film noir double dealing was nominated for 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (co-written by Wilder with Raymond Chandler), Best Actress (Stanwyck), and Best Cinematography (for John Seitz’s cool, crisp, shadowy imagery), but it was just a little too cynical and sour to win anything in that era.

This is also newly remastered and includes the supplements from the earlier DVD special edition: two commentary tracks (on by film historian Richard Schickel, one by film historian / screenwriter Lem Dobbs and film historian Nick Redman), the featurette “Shadows of Suspense,” an introduction by Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, and the 1973 TV-movie remake starring Richard Crenna in the MacMurray role, Samantha Eggar as the seductive Phyllis, and Lee J. Cobb as the insurance boss Keys. Also features an UltraViolet digital copy for download and instant streaming.

People on Sunday

In 1929, a loose collective of young German filmmakers working their way up the ladder of the German studio system took the reigns of a low budget production about a group of attractive young Berliners who meet up for a Sunday outing to lakes. They shot on the streets of Berlin and the parks and beaches of Wannsee on a minimal budget with non-actors (all playing variations of their real selves, right down to their names and occupations) and whatever equipment they could scrounge together, from rough script from which they improvised freely on location. People on Sunday is, in its own words, “a film without actors.” More than that, it was a film without a studio, a production without studio backing or distribution in place, shot on weekends with volunteer cast and crew: the very definition of independent filmmaking. But if the actors were all amateurs, the filmmakers were, to greater or lesser extent, professionals toiling at the lower levels of the film industry. This film was their chance to show the industry, and themselves, just what they could do.

Released in 1930, People on Sunday–one of the final expressions of the silent era in an industry giving over to sound cinema–became a surprise hit, a highly influential film and, over the years, something of a legend, as it was almost impossible to see in the United States for decades. And reputation aside, the collective that made it include some pretty significant names: Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer shared director credit, Billy (listed here as Billie) Wilder is credited with the script, “from a reportage by” Robert Siomak’s brother Curt (credited here as Kurt) Siodmak, with the legendary cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan behind the camera and Fred Zinneman assisting. That line-up alone (which includes more than one future Oscar winner) made the film a kind of grail for fans of classic movies and film history. The inventive filmmaking, breezy pace, light touch, luscious images and gentle, appreciative spirit of the film makes it a classic.

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Out of the Past: The Front Page

[Originally published in Movietone News 54, June 1977]

Billy Wilder’s chief motives in making the third film version of the 1928 Hecht–MacArthur Broadway smash were plain, and he admitted them: he wanted a box-office hit, badly, and this had all the elements for a 1974 killing. It’s a buddy story, a nostalgia piece, a celebration of crusading newspapermen—Woodward and Bernstein, Prohibition-style. Add leftover sets from The Sting for good measure and another re-teaming of the odd couple, Lemmon and Matthau, the latter in a role tailor-made for him. How could it fail?

But it did, thumpingly. Why? I’d suggest the very reason that made it such a good movie, so much more than the remake of the remake of the film of the hit play. Everyone said it was a perfect vehicle for Wilder—he did himself—but this is to ignore one crucial difficulty. The Front Page is a lovely old play, and it really is extremely modern. So how does an auteur as strong as Wilder adapt it with the respect it deserves without submerging his own personality? No one could want, after all this time, to see a Billy Wilder film where Billy Wilder simply translates 46-year-old jokes, however good, into celluloid terms. At the same time, no one wants to see a film of The Front Page which ignores the splendid original. The trick was to find an element personal to Wilder within that elaborate framework, and this he did. And this is why the public stayed away, just as they had done from Kiss Me Stupid and The Fortune Cookie and even The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes (which, for me, is Wilder’s masterpiece). For most of  Wilder’s later films tend to be about loneliness, despair, desperation (this is even true, to an extent, of the sunny, romantic and very beautiful Avanti!), and these things are at the forefront of his version of The Front Page.

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Dinosaurs in the Age of the Cinemobile

John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in Henry Hathaway's 'True Grit'

WHEN BILLY WILDER’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes opened at Christmastime 1970, no one would give it the time of day – literally. In my city, though a cozy relationship with United Artists forced the local theater circuit to book the film into one of the few remaining downtown movie palaces, they had no expectation that it would attract an audience. If you called the theater, asked “When’s the next show?”, and acted accordingly, you would arrive to find yourself in midfilm. Telephone lines had been juggled so that the staff could handle incoming calls for the sister theater across the street, where Love Story was doing land-office business. It never occurred to them that anyone might be interested in “the show” on their own screen, so they automatically gave out the Love Story schedule.

This was an extraordinary case – even if we set aside the outré management practice (I have never heard of a comparable instance of procedural hara-kiri) and the eventual recognition of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes as at the very least an enchanting entertainment, and at best one of the summum masterworks of the cinema. (On that first weekend, the only one the film would have, I watched the evening show with seven other people in the auditorium.) Yet the film’s complete failure in 1970 was, in several respects, definitive of that moment in film history.

For one thing, Holmes was just the sort of sumptuously appointed, nostalgically couched superproduction that once would have seemed tailor-made to rule the holiday season. Only two Christmases before, Carol Reed’s Oliver! had scored a substantial hit, and gone on to win Academy Awards for itself and its director (a “fallen idol” two decades past his prime). Yet in 1969-70, the mid-Sixties vogue for three- and four-hour roadshows – reserved-seat special attractions with souvenir programmes and intermissions – abruptly bottomed out. Indeed, after witnessing such box-office debacles (and lousy movies) as Star and Paint Your Wagon, United Artists demanded that Wilder shorten his film by nearly an hour before they would release it at all.

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